by Dean Hoffman
I said, “I don’t believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter bunny. And I don’t believe that Dragon’s Lair is going to beat Nihilator.”
After all, to that point in the season no horse had beaten Nihiilator. He was unbeaten in 11 starts. He was seemingly unchallenged in those starts, too. He treated his pursuers with disdain and won with ease and aplomb. One of Nihilator’s owners, Lou Guida, thought he was on the path to winning Horse of the Year honors.
Nihilator and Dragon’s Lair met for the firt time that night in their Breeders Crown elimination heat. Nihilator won, as expected, chasing down the pacesetting Dragon’s Lair, but it wasn’t a cakewalk. he needed a mile in !:54.3 to do it, breaking the world record set earlier that ’84 season by Dragon’s Lair himself.
The other elimination heat was won by Pershing Square, a stablemate of Nihilator.
The stage was set. The battle lines were drawn for the final. Nihilator had the rail. His sidekick Pershing Square was just to his right. The Haughton Stable entry (which also included Flight of Fire) was made a prohibitive 1-5 favorite. Dragon’s Lair had post three.
Did Dragon’s Lair really have a chance against this entry?
No one really thought so. Except Jeff Mallet, trainer and driver of Dragon’s Lair.
Since Dragon’s Lair lost his elimination heat to Nihilator after setting the all the pace on the front end, you might think that Mallet would’ve been tempted to drive more conservatively in the final heat and hope for a different outcome.
That was not the case. At the start of the $579,375 final, Mallet aimed Dragon’s Lair right toward the front end once again. No taking back. But Tommy Haughton driving Pershing Square was not taking back either. With his edge being on the inside, Pershing Square was able to keep Dragon’s Lair parked around the first turn.
Driver Jeff Mallet shook the whip at Dragon’s Lair and he paced bravely to get the lead as the opening quarter went in a blistering :26.3.
Now Mallet was able to give Dragon’s Lair a breather. He eased off the throttle and Dragon’s Lair cover the second quarter in :30 seconds with Pershing Square second and Nihlator edging to the outside from third.
Durin the third quarter, when Mallet sensed the challenge from Nihilator, he stepped on the gas again. Dragon’s Lair responded. Nihilator couldn’t reach. Broadway Express was full of pace behind Nihilator, but Dragon’s Lair had opened up a lead of several lengths.
In the homestretch, Nihilator started to bear in and driver Bill O’Donnell whipped him with his left hand.
But Nihilator lacked his explosive speed, and Dragon’s Lair was simply not be denied. Broadway Express edged Nihilator for second as Dragon’s Hair hit the wire in 1:54.1, reclaiming the world record he’d lost to Nihlator an hour earlier.
It was Nihilator’s first lifetime defeat and the large crowd was stunned. It was shocking enough that Nihilator’s hopes for Horse of the Year honors went down the drain that night.
In the post-race interview, Mallet said, “I’d like to thank Lou Guida for bringing Nihilator to the Meadows so that Dragon’s Lair could beat him.”
If it was an ungracious comment, it was also a memorable one. The drama surrounding this remarkable race gave the Breeders Crown the instant prestige and credibility that any new event needs. Three decades later, it is still considered one of the most memorable upsets ever in harness racing.